Serbian government acknowledges opposition win

NIS, Yugoslavia (AP) — Weeks of street protests and international arm-twisting wrung a key concession Wednesday from Serbia’s ruling party: It acknowledged that opposition candidates won elections in Nis, the republic’s second-largest city.
President Slobodan Milosevic’s courts had annulled Nov. 17 opposition victories in Belgrade, Nis and 12 other municipalities, sparking the massive daily protests that have been the biggest challenge ever to his authoritarian rule.
In a statement, his Socialist government conceded Nis (pronounced Neesh), and said that those who blocked the rightful winners should be punished.
It was unclear exactly when and how Milosevic would turn control of Nis over to opposition politicians. Nevertheless, the statement represented a painful concession for Milosevic, who has withstood pressure at home and abroad for nearly two months.
The victory could mean that Milosevic would lose his iron grip on the news media; opposition politicians have vowed to open up independent media outlets in the cities they controls.
Still, it wasn’t enough for opposition leaders, who said demonstrations would continue until the president recognizes all their victories.
“Let me ask you. If Milosevic stole $10,000 from you and after 50 days gave back $6,000, would you be satisfied?” asked Vuk Draskovic, an opposition leader. “We do not accept anything but the complete recognition of Nov. 17 results.”
Before the government broadcast its concession on TV, thousands of protesters rallied in Nis and Belgrade, blocking downtown streets with their cars and booing the riot police who have prevented them from marching.
“Let’s all come out, in our cars and on foot,” Draskovic said. “We’ll see then who can stop us.”
Even as Milosevic gave up Nis, there were concerns that police would use force against demonstrators, in their 51st day of protests.
The neo-Communist party run by the president’s powerful wife, Mirjana Markovic, claimed the opposition intends to topple the government. It urged authorities to act against the “enemies of the state … financed from abroad.”
The Communist statement was a possible prelude to a use of force, as Markovic and her party are believed to have considerable influence on Milosevic.
The last violence during protests was Dec. 27, when uniformed and plainclothes police clubbed reporters and small groups of demonstrators leaving a demonstration. Dozens were injured.
Before now, Milosevic had acknowledged opposition victories only in smaller towns, holding fast to his control of Nis and Belgrade.
Some small municipalities remain under dispute. And Milosevic is unlikely to give up Belgrade. While conceding the opposition won most Belgrade suburban councils, the Socialists have dodged the question of who won the main city council.
The government statement said the opposition coalition won 37 seats in Nis and the Socialists 32. The opposition had claimed 41 seats. Opposition leader Zoran Djindjic said were happy with the concession but would still demand four more seats.
Although a local court had upheld the opposition claim on Nis, the city’s Milosevic-loyal electoral commission refused to honor the ruling and demanded new elections.
In its statement Wednesday, the government ordered an investigation against all “responsible for irregularities,” indicating Milosevic was ready to sacrifice some of his associates to avoid personal blame.
Milosevic’s Socialist party controls most of the news media, which usually heaps harsh condemnation on his critics. But in a surprising move, the Vecernje Novosti newspaper criticized judicial authorities for failing to concede the electoral losses.
Djindjic saw Wednesday’s editorial as a sign of weakness on the Milosevic front.
“That is a signal that the erosion of his power is even faster than we could expect,” he said. “The state structures are in disarray … and some want to distance themselves from his policy as soon as possible.”